Friday, January 14, 2011

Poetry Friday: Justin Townes Earle's Harlem River Blues (plus a cry from Kabir)

Was there ever a more infectious song about drowning? (Ya-huh, that's an original song, even though you'd swear it's a classic as old as a muddy river.)

I'm puzzled over why a call to suicide is cheering me up today. Justin Townes Earle seems to be saying, "Go out on top. Don't wait for life to screw you over, or for you to screw up in life. Drown while you're in a state of grace."

As one who deeply loves quite a few people who are bursting with grace, or who are just figuring out how filled with grace they are, or who are reaching for grace at a moment much later than they planned, or who are simply tired and yearning for grace after being beat, time and time again, I don't want ANY of them to be covered up "without a sound."

If Earle meant that, then why is the music---the emotional current of the song as opposed to the intellectual argument of the lyrics----so joyous?  Because walking that walk---"up the FDR" (a NYC parkway that runs along the Harlem River)---"a-clapping and a-singing"---is exactly how to survive. I can't imagine the FDR is attractive. I can't imagine it's easy to walk. And I can't imagine the river at your side ever gives up and goes away instead of lapping "dirty water" against your ears. So what to do, then, but set its siren call to a transparent and luminous counter-rhythm? Brilliant, Mr. JTE.

In other words,

Do you have a body? Don't sit on the porch!
Go out and walk in the rain!
If you are in love,
then why are you asleep?
Wake up, wake up!
You have slept millions and millions of years
Why not wake up this morning?

----poem by Indian poet Kabir, as translated by Robert Bly, found in the pages of Barbara Brown Taylor's An Altar in the World

More about Justin Townes Earl's album, Harlem River Blues

Poetry Friday is hosted today by poet Laura Purdie Salas.


  1. Wow. You've captured this song well. I'm going to go get my iPod and listen again. It's a wonderful song. Just the other day, no kidding, I was pondering these very things -- the joy of the music itself as juxtaposed with the lyrics.

  2. p.s. I want to mine Letterman's music collection. He always has such a genuinely happy response to the really good musicians who show up, as if he truly enjoyed himself listening.

  3. Lovely. And I love your third paragraph: "bursting with grace," "yearning for grace," "reaching for grace." Grace is a beautiful thing to think about and surround ourselves with. Thank you.

  4. what a voice. it's like he was born to sing that exact style of upbeat country rhythm.

    i'm drawing specific blanks right now, but there's so much early jazz that celebrates the downside so jubilantly, and the second line music of new orlean's funerals...

    but you're right, running a "transparent and luminous counter-rhythm" is what makes it. and that goes with so many other things as well.

    thanks for putting a new artist on my horizon.

  5. Luscious...really rich stuff...and the post was so complete with the poem from Kabir...thank you, Sara.

  6. Going to have to listen to more of this--what an odd and cheery song. Reminds me of the church hymns that talk about the resurrection in such a joyous way. Can't think of any in particular, of course.

    And thank you for the Kabir poem, too! This is like the battle cry of life to me.

  7. I should've credited my husband with the find, btw. He's been following JTE for a while now (His dad, Steve Earle, too.) He knows a lot about musical traditions, as you do David. And Jules. Heck, everyone who commented probably knows more about music than me.

    But there's something that compels me to put poems in juxtaposition with mysteries I'm trying to grasp. The other week, it was math doodles. This week, it's JTE.

    The other thing I like to do is crank up BB KIng's Bluesville on sat radio, and get an education.

  8. steve earle's kid. i think i had a flash of wondering but his approach made me forget wondering about his lineage.

    word verification: reabb. i think steve earle did some time in reabb.

  9. Dude. That guy is on fire! Thanks for introducing me. He's mesmerizing, all the more so because I drive past the Harlem River and down the FDR all the time which makes it quite vivid.

  10. Sara, I too, loved your third paragraph. I, too, deeply love quite a few people who are bursting with grace, or who are just figuring out how filled with grace they are... Your post about poetry is so poetical.


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